Wisconsin’s Wolf Overharvest was Predictable, Preventable
Updated: May 7, 2021
No one monitoring Wisconsin’s wolf-management melodramas the past 25 years was shocked Feb. 24-25 as the Department of Natural Resources sat impotent while legally licensed hunters finished bringing in 218 wolves, exceeding the quota by 99.
Maybe it was bound to happen, given Wisconsin’s dysfunctional Legislature, and the gray wolf’s emotional hold on its haters and lovers. In addition, federal courts from 1998 to 2008 blocked the Clinton and Bush administrations from ending Endangered Species Act protections for the Great Lakes’ wolf population, and overturned the Obama Administration’s delisting decision that let Wisconsin hold wolf seasons from 2012 through 2014.
Untangling those complexities required much deliberation and public input, which is why the DNR pushed for a Nov. 6 opening this fall. Instead, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Bennett Brantmeier ordered the state Feb. 11 to hold a wolf season before month’s end to comply with Act 169, which set the season by statute. The seven-citizen Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy, met four days later to comply.
Mark Twain said one must prepare several hours to deliver a good impromptu speech. The NRB and DNR administrators proved him right. The NRB spent only 36 minutes Feb. 15 to improvise this hunt, and the DNR failed miserably to regulate it. Even though the DNR announced Feb. 23 it was ending the scheduled seven-day season by 3 p.m. the third day, permit-holders blew past their 119-wolf quota.
Granted, the NRB and DNR set a 200-wolf quota, but they allocated 81 to the state’s Ojibwe bands, as required by treaty. The tribes didn’t use their allotment, but the DNR can’t just put it back into the nontribal pot. We’re law-abiding people, right?
But whether the kill exceeded the quota by 8% or 83%, it did not match standards the DNR set during Wisconsin’ previous three wolf seasons. Hunters and trappers exceeded the 2014 quota, 150, by four (2.6%) wolves; the 2013 quota, 251, by six (2.4%) wolves; and the 2012 quota, 116, by one (0.86%) wolf. Combined, that’s 528 wolves from 2012 to 2014, or 11 (2.1%) over the nontribal quota.
So, why did the NRB and DNR embarrass themselves this time? Two factors stand out: They allotted a record percentage of kill permits, and gave license-holders 24 hours to register their kills, even though they could do so by phone or computer.
Yes, rural Wisconsin often lacks reliable cell-phone coverage, but no one must drive 24 hours to get reception. Nothing in Act 169 prevented the NRB and DNR from imposing a short registration window, such as four hours. Sturgeon spearers on the Winnebago System, for example, must haul their fish to a registration station within an hour of the daily 1 p.m. closures.
By allowing 24 hours to register kills, the DNR let foot-draggers extend the season and sabotage the quota, deliberately or innocently. We’ll know more once the agency compares harvest times with registration times.
Eric Lobner, the DNR’s wildlife bureau director, said only nine wolves were registered the first day, Feb. 22. That increased overnight to 48, and ballooned quickly Tuesday morning, Feb. 23. At 10 a.m., the DNR announced the season in zones 2, 5 and 6 would close at 10 a.m. the next day, Feb. 24, complying with Act 169’s closure mandate. Five hours later on Feb. 23, the agency said the other zones—1, 3 and 4—would close at 3 p.m. the next day.
That 24-hour registration window worked in 2012 to 2014 because trappers dominated those early harvests after the seasons opened Oct. 15. Using foot-hold traps, a relatively inefficient tool, trappers slowly took 61 (52%) of the 2012 season’s 117 wolves, 180 (70%) of 2013’s 257 wolves, and 124 (80.5%) of 2014’s 154 wolves. Hunters accounted for the rest, typically using calls and decoys to lure wolves into range, or shooting them opportunistically while hunting deer during the archery or firearms seasons.
Hunters couldn’t use trailing hounds in 2012. Starting in 2013, they had to wait until after the gun-deer season, which closes the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Hound-hunters got 35 wolves (14%) in 2013; and six wolves (4%) in 2014.
Those slow roll-outs provided a 60-day wolf season in 2012, 69 days in 2013, and 52 days in 2014. Trappers those seasons took a combined 365 wolves (69%), and hunters using calls or other methods took 122 (23%). To better balance the kill between trappers and hunters after 2014, lawmakers shifted the season opener to the first Saturday in November.
Hound-hunters in 2013 and 2014 took 10% of the 411 wolves. In contrast, hound-hunters took 185 (86%) of the 216 wolves killed Feb. 22-24, while trappers took only 11 (5%), and hunters using calls or other methods took 20 (9%). In effect, hound-hunters proved efficiently lethal.
Some folks fault them for that, but hear them out. They benefited from fresh snow all three days of the truncated season across the Northwoods, making it easy to find hot tracks and unleash their hounds. Without fresh snows they would have had a tougher time identifying fresh tracks in older, more crusted snow.
Most trappers, meanwhile, didn’t apply for a permit, said Mike Wilhite, editor of the Trapper’s Post magazine in Scandinavia. Wilhite said wolf pelts peak in quality in December, and decrease by late February through wear and tear. He also said trapping conditions aren’t as good in February, given the snow cover. He advised trappers to buy a preference point for the fall hunt.
Skye Goode, Neillsville, the Wisconsin Trappers Association’s social-media director and a trapper-education instructor, predicted Feb. 6 that if a season were held, it wouldn’t last long because skilled hound-hunters can quickly assess and hunt snow-covered ground. Good houndsmen also had several licensed hunters waiting for openings to join them.
“They’ll probably fill the quota by the time I check my traps twice,” Goode accurately predicted.
In contrast, at its Feb. 15 meeting, NRB vice chair Greg Kazmierski called the proposed Feb. 22-28 season a “very short window to reach those harvest goals.” Only 16 minutes into the meeting Kazmierski made a motion to accept the DNR’s suggested 200-wolf quota, and he suggested permit numbers be 20 times the nontribal quota. During the 2012-2014 seasons, the DNR awarded permits at 10 times that quota.
“Upping those numbers of hunters in the field will give us a better shot at filling that quota,” Kazmierski said. He also directed the DNR to not end the season in any zone before Feb. 28 unless the “full amount of the harvest for that zone has been reached.”
Even though Kazmierski lacks any scientific training or practical fieldwork, no one from the NRB or DNR asked him to cite precedents or sources for his logic or numbers. In fact, only after the NRB passed Kazmierski’s motion, 7-0, did DNR Secretary Preston Cole speak. After detaching his chin from his cupped hand, Cole briefly thanked DNR staff for their work.
The DNR then offered Kazmierski’s 2,380 permits for sale online, and hunters and trappers bought 1,548, or 13 times the quota. In contrast, the DNR sold 893 permits in 2012, or 7.7 times the quota; 1,879 in 2013, 7.3 times the quota; and 1,139 permits in 2014, or 7.6 times the quota.
Fortunately, the DNR anticipated the wolf overharvest on Day 2, and closed the season in two steps on Day 3. In effect, the agency quietly ignored Kazmierski’s directive to attain the full harvest quota before closing a zone. If the agency hadn’t done so, the overkill would have been worse.
Even so, Wisconsin’s February 2021 wolf season lacked the scientific integrity of the 2012-14 seasons. That will likely hurt the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 23-year effort to remove the robust wolf population of northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan from the federal Endangered Species List.
You can thank Kazmierski and the NRB for this mind-numbing setback, and DNR brass for not striving to prevent it.
By not requiring timely wolf registrations and issuing too many hunting/trapping permits, Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board ensured an overharvest during the hastily arranged Feb. 22-24 season. — Submitted photo by Cuddeback Trail Cameras